THE FEES BLAME GAME
The financial-aid logjam in higher education can be resolved by better management. But growing the economy to make the policy affordable is going to be far more difficult
The resignation of corporate heavyweight Sizwe Nxasana as chair of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the government decision to place it under administration is a textbook case of how not to manage policy change.
Former president Jacob Zuma’s announcement on December 16 that higher education would, from 2018, be free for all qualifying poor students came like a bolt from the blue.
With just weeks to go before the start of the academic year, NSFAS had to gear up to handle a deluge of applications, which surged to more than 600,000 against the usual 400,000. And then it had to wait until April to get the required funding.
It would have been a tall order for an efficient, respected institution to manage the situation — but NSFAS was neither.
Operationally, it had a new CEO in Steven Zwane. He was still bedding down the change, made in 2016, from a system in which the 26 universities administered their own financial aid to one that centralised everything under NSFAS.
Former University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen describes NSFAS as “a monstrosity”, beset by ongoing inefficiencies and lacking credibility, having amassed R20bn in outstanding loan repayments over many years.
Given NSFAS’S lack of capacity and credibility, it was a “massive blunder” to centralise all financial aid under its control in 2016, says Jansen. “To think it could take the whole
R21bn [free-fees system] on its own shoulders was madness.”
Nxasana, a former Firstrand CEO, thinks NSFAS “actually did quite well under the circumstances”, bearing in mind it was administering two systems at once: a loan-recovery system for former students, and a bursary or grant system for new, fee-free students.
NSFAS says it has processed more than 600,000 applications and approved aid for 478,580 new and returning students who meet the criteria. Roughly 370,000 of these approved students have been paid out, but the long delays in disbursing student allowances have given rise to horror stories about students going hungry, being forced to live in squalor and facing eviction.
According to Nxasana, the payment backlog mainly concerns students who have failed to sign their new NSFAS bursary agreements.
The bursary agreements, which replace the previous NSFAS loan agreements, are a source of much unhappiness. Some students have balked at the fact that the no-strings promise of free education has been reduced to a bursary, complete with terms and conditions and, in some cases, stricter performance requirements than before.
For instance, under the old agreement students could continue to qualify for NSFAS funding if they completed their university degrees within the regulated time plus two years (N+2). This has been reduced to N+1 because the new package is much more generous, covering almost the full cost of funding, including books, materials, transport, accommodation and fees.
Part of the delay in paying students their allowances was caused by the absence of any policy detail in Zuma’s December 16 announcement. It took until mid-may for the government to decide on, cost and approve the terms of the new package.
Various stakeholders were involved. For instance, universities had to develop benchmarks for on-campus or university-accredited accommodation; NSFAS had to develop benchmarks for meals; the department of higher education & training had to develop travel benchmarks; and all these benchmarks, which were fundamentally different from the previous policy, had to be costed by the National Treasury.
“This was clearly a textbook case of how not to manage policy change,” says former University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg. “[The announcement of feefree education] was clearly a desperate political act by Jacob Zuma devoid of any understanding of the complexity of implementing and funding that policy.”
If the government learns anything from the debacle, it should be that precipitous policy changes should not be announced unless critical institutions have the funding and capacity to implement them.
But instead of blaming the government for mishandling the issue, NSFAS has borne the brunt of students’ anger, leading to good people like Nxasana being pilloried.
Last week, student organisations warned of more national protests at higher education institutions, while the National Education, Health & Allied Workers’ Union repeated its demand that Zwane step down.
“It is utterly unfair of students and unions to dismiss NSFAS as a failed organisation, given the context,” says Rensburg.